Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(19) The Bull-Ring

The card featured below - captioned "ON THE BULL RING" - is a black and white drawing by ‘J.W. Davis’. There are no publishers details on the reverse of it. During the Great War the 'Bull-Ring' at Etaples - on the  France coast, earned a notorious reputation for its routine of rigorous military training and iron discipline.
ww1 postcard featuring the BULL RING

The postcard illustration depicts a 'canary' encouraging men as they bayonet charged sandbags,  which were supposed to represent German soldiers. This method of training was said to create the ’blood·spirit’ and it often worked. “We had murder in our hearts as we bayoneted the sacks”, said one soldier and went on “nothing we encountered thereafter provoked such rage as we felt when, we charged, shouted and being cursed at, pursued and prodded...downhill and uphill, running, stumbling, while the canaries chirped. Some men believed that it was all done to make us glad to go to the front”.


A soldier who spent some time there said, “No one knows who christened that area a 'Bull·Ring' but it was a suitable name up to a point. The matadors and picadors were there, as large as life and twice as fierce, but the bulls were like lambs led to the slaughter.”

The Etaples Bull-Rng was situated on sand flats and dunes near the main part of the British army camp at Etaples. it was the main centre in France for the final training of British troops before they went up to the front. “Etaples was hell”, said a soldier, “everything was done at the double and ferocious redcaps lurked in every corner." The instructors - who wore yellow armbands - were known as 'canaries' and put their charges through two weeks of intensive training which lasted from early morning until sunset.

One Sunday afternoon, in September 1917, after a summer of discontent, events boiled over at Etaples. A corporal was shot and killed by a redcap after an angry crowd had gathered over the arrest of a gunner. By  evening the trouble had escalated into a mutiny. Hundreds of angry soldiers chased the military police who fled into the town. Sporadic demonstrations occurred at various points around the camp, and over a thousand soldiers defied orders and broke out. It was not until several days later that the ’mutiny’ was brought under control · by the presence of cavalry with machine·guns in support.

Even battle·hardened veterans were unhappy at Etaples. Men who had been injured in conflict and recovered, were often sent there for retraining before they were sent back to the Front. One veteran said, “Considering ourselves old campaigners we resented still more the treatment accorded to drafts fresh from England...such boys they seemed”. He went on, “At Etaples we were treated in a manner which made us ashamed to be soldiers · it made us bitter”. He gave an example. On his last day at the Bull-Ring he attended a church service,and when it was over the padre said, “Some of you are going to our death, but I want you to die like heroes, with a smile on your lips and the love of god in your hearts.”



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